There are no hamburgers at Ace Burger, a tiny restaurant on Valley Boulevard, on the same block as Pepe's Finest Mexican Food. But there's a short menu offering chicken burgers and New Orleans-style chicken wings.
The chicken burger is not the chicken burger you're probably thinking of. No ground meat is involved in its making. It's essentially a fried chicken sandwich built like the cheapest version of a fast-food hamburger: a breaded and fried chicken thigh slapped onto a basic bun dressed with mayonnaise and iceberg lettuce.
"It's a Chinese-style chicken burger," explains Ace Burger owner Kai Jiang. He opened the Alhambra restaurant three years ago and has since added another location in Irvine.
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"You know the chicken sandwiches at Popeye's, McDonald's and KFC?" he says. "It's different. It's something very popular in China."
The Chinese chicken burger is a sandwich served at a specific style of restaurant I recently started seeing pop up in the San Gabriel Valley. It's usually a fast-casual setup with a menu that includes chicken burgers, popcorn chicken, something called New Orleans-style chicken and some other deep-fried delicacies (mozzarella sticks, squid rings, fries, etc.).
Nowhere is the chicken burger trend more evident than in the trilevel shopping center attached to the San Gabriel Hilton, where you'll find two chicken burger restaurants on the ground floor.
Macho Burger is a chain with multiple locations in California including Arcadia, San Gabriel, Rowland Heights and Sunnyvale. It is not the restaurant with a similar name in China that was forced to close after ripped waiters flexed their muscles, fed women mouth-to-mouth and danced provocatively.
The San Gabriel Macho Burger is a small, fast-casual restaurant with a bright red and yellow logo that evokes American fast-food vibes. The brand mascot is a cartoon character with buff arms, a red tank top, sunglasses and a baseball cap with a top that looks like a sesame seed bun. The word "steroids" more easily comes to mind, but steroids burger doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
The menu includes chicken burgers, large fried chicken chops (like the extra-large cutlets you'll find at an Asian night market), something called a tender beef wrap that looks like a Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme but with sliced steak, fried fish sandwiches, a Macho Cheeseburger that's actually made with a beef patty and Orleans grilled wings (more on these later).
The Macho Burger spicy fried chicken sandwich is served on a soft, golden potato roll. It's a hefty sandwich featuring a giant chicken thigh with a circumference significantly larger than the bun. The meat is juicy, salty and a little stringy, with a thick, craggy crust laced with an immoderate amount of black pepper. Though it's advertised as spicy, it's got about as much kick as a jar of mild salsa.
Chickii Fried Chicken
Along the north side of the plaza is Chickii Fried Chicken, another restaurant offering chicken burgers, chicken wings, large fried chicken chops, chicken wraps and mozzarella sticks. Though Chickii also advertises durian pizza and Macao-style egg tarts, neither was available when I visited.
The spicy chicken burger is served on a slightly dry sesame seed bun. It's built with two chicken thighs that don't quite line up with each other on the sandwich, ensuring that the entire thing falls apart at about bite three. The chicken is moist enough and fried well but devoid of any flavor beyond a searing heat from a layer of what looked like chili powder caked under the skin.
MBL & Q Burger
MBL & Q Burger is at the back of a food court in a Rowland Heights strip mall off Colima Road. I found other seemingly related locations in Philadelphia and New York but only one in Southern California. The mascot for the restaurant is an angry, screaming burger with four limbs.
How do I know the burger is screaming? His eyebrows are raised in what looks to be alarm and his mouth is stretched wide open. He's also gripping a spoon in one hand and a pan of rice in the other. He's wearing a bowtie and he has all the makings of a line of cute angry-burger-man merch.
As at the other chicken burger restaurants, you'll find chicken burgers, a short list of other fried delicacies and "New Orleans roast chicken." But the menu here seems to be broader, with crab, shrimp and fish burgers, barbecued fish ball skewers, nori-wrapped fried chicken rice balls and something called chicken enchiladas that look like squares of stir-fried chicken.
The MBL & Q chicken burger has a curious artificial-cheese-powder smell that doesn't quite penetrate the actual flavor of the chicken. The coating is more pale then golden but still crisp, and the bun is soft, fresh and unadorned by sesame seeds. It's an adequately lubricated sandwich with a sweet mayonnaise spread and stacked with iceberg lettuce and a slice of tomato.
I stumbled upon Ace Burger while eating at another restaurant nearby. I Googled the name to find that it was yet another chicken burger restaurant (with a Guy Fieri quote under the "About" section of the website).
"I grew up in China eating hamburgers that taste like this," says Jiang on a recent visit. "I prefer the taste to American hamburgers so I opened this shop."
Jiang's spicy chicken burger has the distinct fast-food aroma of warm iceberg lettuce dressed in mayonnaise and the heft of a double cheeseburger. It's served on your standard seeded hamburger bun that's nicely toasted on both sides.
His chicken is juicier than the versions mentioned above, with hints of soy and white pepper in what Jiang calls his "secret marinade." The coating is jagged, crunchy and well seasoned. He's generous with the shredded lettuce and the mayonnaise.
"It's more of a Shanghai flavor because I'm from Shanghai," he says. "But it's a secret."
It was at Ace Burger that I finally broke down and ordered the New Orleans-style chicken wings I spied at some of the other chicken burger restaurants. "In China, people call it New Orleans-style," Jiang says. "But I don't know why."
The chicken wings are tossed in a vaguely sweet glaze that's reminiscent of barbecue sauce.
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, KFC China took credit for inventing New Orleans wings more than two decades ago. Tyson Foods makes New Orleans-style wings that can be found at membership-only outlet stores in China, and Jiang says it's a popular food you can find at restaurants around the country.
I wasn't getting much New Orleans energy from the wings, but I did wish I had a cup of ranch.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.